By Thomas A. Parmalee
Thomas H. Johnson, the founder of Prime Succession and Johnson Consulting Group, died Dec. 21. He was 73 years old.
After beginning his career in banking and then serving in several key positions with Batesville Casket Company, Johnson became president and CEO of Pierce Brothers Mortuaries & Cemeteries in Los Angeles, according to his biography on the Johnson Consulting Group website.
There, he grew the company from 17 locations to a total of 64 funeral homes and 14 cemeteries, making it, at the time, the largest regional independent funeral and cemetery operation in the United States. When Pierce was sold to Service Corporation International, he left the company and founded Prime Succession, which grew from no operations to 146 funeral homes and 17 cemetery locations in only three years, becoming the largest national independent operation in the country.
After Prime Succession, he started Johnson Consulting Group, which has become one of the premier consulting companies in the death-care profession, focusing on mergers and acquisitions, business valuations and appraisals, accounting services, management services and training and business financing.
One of his greatest legacies will be his formation of the long running Memorial Classic Golf tournament hosted annually to honor and remember his friends in funeral service. The tournament provides scholarships in conjunction with the Funeral Service Foundation and the ICCFA Educational Foundation.
Kim Price, a regional vice president at National Guardian Life Insurance Co., has been the coordinator of the Memorial Golf Classic for many years. She first met Johnson via a phone interview for an executive assistant position at Prime Succession.
“Even over the phone, I could sense his dynamic and magnetic personality,” she said. “I remember sitting in his mother’s kitchen with him using an old-fashioned typewriter to get things started. As the first employee of Prime, I got to watch firsthand as he built the company. He led with certainty, kindness, incredible vision and a big heart. I don’t think I have ever known a more charismatic leader.”
The two remained friends even after Price left Prime Succession, and she continued coordinating the golf tournament that has been a staple of the profession for so many years.
“There were several trials and triumphs along the way, but each year we were proud to make it better than the last,” Price said. “Tom was passionate about honoring his friends and colleagues that had contributed so much to this profession. ”
Johnson’s focus on friendship and maintaining professional relationships will sustain the Memorial Golf Classic for many years to come, Price said. “As he takes the top rank on that leader board in my mind, he would want us to remember that we should pull together as a team to continue that fine tradition and create opportunities for those to come in the future,” she said.
Marilyn Jones Gould, a founder of MKJ Marketing and a consultant to Tribute Technology, knew Johnson as a great co-worker at Batesville, a first-class client and a trusted friend. “But my favorite working relationship memory was when we served together as trustees for the Funeral Service Foundation,” she said. “Everyone knows of his business success, but his true genius as a builder of organizations is what he accomplished in his years on the board.”
She explained that while all board members contributed time and money, it was Johnson who two decades ago used his business acumen to establish systems that still contribute to the foundation’s success today. “He took the faltering FSF Golf Outing held annually right before the National Funeral Directors Association convention, and the first year brought record registrations and contributions,” she said. “He didn’t stop there. His own company’s event became another way of generating record contributions for FSF. He was known for creating revenue streams that never dried up. In his life, he issued a challenge to all of us in the industry to use our talents to establish ventures that keep running and benefit the industry even after our death.”
Glenn H. Gould III, a founder of MKJ Marketing and a consultant to Tribute Technology said Johnson’s incredible vision and charismatic personality stick out to him the most. “In a private conversation decades ago, he foretold that the majority of funeral businesses in the country would change ownership at least twice, which has proven prophetic,” he said. “Second, Tom’s charismatic personality enabled him to create strong bonds with people important to him. It allowed him to build businesses he ran for others, as well as the businesses he founded.”
He concluded, “When you consider the most significant individuals in the twentieth century to the funeral industry, there’s Robert Waltrip, Dan Hillenbrand, Wilbert Haas and Tom Johnson.”
John Heald, general manager of the funeral home channel at Legacy.com, who serves on the board of trustees and is the fund development chair of the Funeral Service Foundation, called Johnson “a true icon in the world of funeral service.” He added, “Since starting the Memorial Classic, the Funeral Service Foundation has been awarded $700,000 to support the mission of ‘lifting up grieving communities by investing in people and programs that strengthen funeral service.’ He has left a significant mark on this profession that lives on through his son, Jake, Johnson Consulting Group and all those across the world of funeral service that he impacted. He will be missed dearly, but his legacy will live on.”
Jake Johnson, who took over Johnson Consulting Group as president and CEO from his dad when he retired, said there are many things he’s always admired about his father. “He was an image guy, and image brought success for him,” he said. “Whether he was having a bad day or not, it would be hard to know if you were talking to him. Dad always brought his leadership image with him when he arrived at work. He was calculating to be sure that image was never put in harm’s way.”
His father strongly believed that staying positive could strongly influence someone’s success, Jake Johnson said. “Dad was very busy during his career, but as his son, I can confidently say that until later in life, he was ready to do things on the weekend and took his children on great trips that I still remember to this day.”
He was also always generous with his time and resources, Jake Johnson said. “I’ve listened to many lately on how Dad touched their life and helped them excel in their career and achieve financial success,” Jake Johnson said. “Dad enjoyed doing that for people and always erred on the side of giving rather than taking. He was also a presence in any room, and his presence drew respect without ever asking for it.”
Michael DiBease, who retired as senior vice president of strategic markets at Batesville and now operates Michael DiBease Consulting, considers Johnson to be one of his greatest teachers. “Tom was a great mentor — we talked about a lot of things, and we would bat things around,” he said. “That is the kind of relationship we had, and it was very special.”
Johnson was the one who hired DiBease when he started at Batesville more than 40 years ago, he said. Johnson’s father was a bank president, and the family had deep roots in Batesville, according to DiBease.
“By schooling, Tom was a banker more than anything else,” DiBease said. “He just knew he had a good opportunity at Batesville Casket Co., as he had been around it all his life in some shape or form.”
The most significant mark Johnson left on the profession — other than the number of people he helped — is how generous he was to others, DiBease said.
“He had a personality and character that was bigger than life itself, and he was a born leader,” DiBease said. “He was also an extremely competitive man. Whether it was business, sports, golf, cards, fishing or any other aspect of life, he was incredibly competitive.”
What will always stand out most to DiBease, however, was Johnson’s sense of fairness and generosity, he said.
“He would take time to answer any question or to give advice,” DiBease said.
For 47 years, Johnson was one of DiBease’s best friends. “We had so many adventures together,” he said. “Both in business and personally. We traveled together, golfed together, hunted together and fished together. He will be sadly missed by so many. I was blessed and am grateful that he was a part of my life.”
Steve Shaffer, president, CEO and board chair of Homesteaders Life Company, said, “One of the most challenging parts about being part of a profession for so many years is losing those partners, friends and mentors who have helped you along the way. When I heard Tom Johnson had passed, I was both shocked and saddened. Tom has been such a huge figure in the profession for so many years it is hard to conceive of him passing.”
He continued, “Tom gave me my first job in the funeral profession at Prime Succession in 1994 as a ‘wet-behind-the ears’ accountant. He introduced me to so many people since his team was so well rounded and experienced in the profession — they taught me everything I needed to know about the important work that is done in funeral service, and most importantly, how important the people are who do this work. Tom always treated people with respect though he expected a lot out of his team. He was a force that attracted talent, drove a vision and achieved immeasurable success by doing right by the profession and the people he worked with. He was a strong advocate for the funeral profession, and because he did things right, he made lifelong friends along the way. Tom will be truly missed, and I will always be thankful for all that he did for me personally, professionally and for funeral service!”
Jim Price, who has also blazed a trail in funeral service and knew Johnson for decades, called him “a huge giant in our profession.” He said, “My first contact with Tom was in the late 1970s. I was on a Batesville plant tour when I was a location manger for International Funeral Services. Shortly thereafter, he joined us at IFS and continued to be a mentor for me. He went on to be the president and CEO for Pierce Brothers Mortuary & Cemeteries. There are hundreds and hundreds of individuals in our profession that Tom made a significantly positive impact on, both personally and professionally. I’ve been truly blessed to have had him as my friend and my mentor.”
Jay Waring, chief operating officer of Service Corporation International, said, “Tom truly loved our profession and everyone associated with it. As the old saying goes, ‘Everything in life is relationships.’ Tom certainly overindexed in this area.”
He added, “He was a bottomless well of optimism and had the charisma, collegiality, deep loyalty and swagger to go along with it.”
You’re only a leader if someone wants to follow you, and Johnson certainly had a huge following, Waring said. “A natural leader, he was always there to listen and offer advice and support,” he said. “He succeeded in every key and pivotal leadership role that he ever had – whether running Greenwood in San Diego, Pierce Brothers, Prime Succession or Johnson Consulting. Along the way he helped thousands, always gave back to our profession, and we will miss him immensely.”
Anthony Kaniuk, director of industry relations at the National Funeral Directors Association, said, “Tom was a business guy; he was the one who told people to work on their business versus in their business. He passed that down to Jake. What a sad day for funeral service.”
When Kaniuk first began working in funeral service decades ago under Adrian Boylston, the late former publisher of Kates-Boylston Publications, he was told that whenever he had a question about funeral service, to reach out to Johnson. “He was the one who would know what is going on with anything related to the business side of funeral service,” he said.
Doug Gober, a partner at The Foresight Companies, said that while some considered Tom Johnson his competitor, he never did.
“I have known him for more than 30 years going all the way back to the Prime Succession days,” Gober said. “My fondest memories of Tom were when he was building something.”
It was incredible watching Johnson build and maintain relationships, Gober said. “We certainly had our differences of opinion along the way, but he and I always got along quite well,” he said. “The relationships that he established and continued throughout his entire career is really what this business is all about and what Tom Johnson was all about.”
Gober also admires how Johnson was able to successfully transition Johnson Consulting Group to his son, Jake.
“They are different people but the same in many ways,” Gober said. “I have known Jake since he was a child, and I have seen him blossom into a very solid professional who also has great relationships and a great relationship with us (at The Foresight Companies). It is a unique thing in business today to have the next generation see this business the same way as the first generation.”
Rich Darby, founder and president of Operation Honor Guard, a board member at Greenwood, and the retired chief operating officer of Trigard/Sunset Funeral Homes/and Sunset Memorial Park, said, “Tom was a true icon in our industry. He held so much knowledge by being involved as an owner/operator, consultant, broker, and serving on the board of directors at Batesville. Tom believed in relationships and was always willing to take your call. Tom was a fair man that would always be willing to give you his true opinion. I always appreciated that in him.” He added, “His knowledge and legacy will live on, as he has shared it with his son, Jake, and so many at Johnson Consulting.”
A visitation will be held from 3 to 7 p.m. on Dec. 28 at Weigel Funeral Home in Batesville, Indiana.
Following the graveside service, there will be a reception from 11:30 to noon at 857 Six Pine Ranch Road in Batesville.